Ziya Meral is a researcher and academic focusing on religion, violence and human rights issues. He is a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre and a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Cambridge.
It is that time of the political calendar once again when politicians try to outbid each other in what is now horribly dull and repetitive public discussion on migration. Whilst voices from the business world have continually raised their concerns about the adverse effects of such politics on the British economy, and academics have demonstrated serious problems with the figures and hyperbole casually thrown into discussions to incite hysteria over migration, not many have asked what the Conservatives might be losing in this process.
Attempts to appeal to cohorts concerned enough about migration to consider voting for UKIP is not surprising. Thus the appointment of Sir Andrew Green to the House of Lords and the careless comments made by Michael Fallon did not really shock or awe any of us. If anything, we have been underwhelmed. Yet, what has been increasingly shocking is the continual short-sightedness of such moves, and that the Conservatives still do not recognise what they are losing in this process: the substantial number of votes that they could attract from British citizens who are naturalised or with migrant origins.
For those whose understanding of contemporary Britain and its myriad communities and citizenry is outdated, the main constituency of the Conservative Party might still be imagined to be the archetypal “English” voter. But the reality is that a significant portion, if not the majority, of naturalised citizens and their children have values much closer to traditional Conservative ones than to those of any other party.
This is particularly so for those of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Eastern and Southern European origin. Voters from these backgrounds tend to be much more socially, religiously, culturally and politically conservative. The legends of “benefit cheats and tourists” blind us from seeing that the vast majority of Brits with migrant roots have had to work incredibly hard to make their home in the UK, and to advance the wellbeing of their family.
Therefore, they highly value hard work, and appreciate the safety nets provided by the British welfare system – since their experiences in their respective countries of origin make them acutely aware of the UK system’s uniqueness in the world. And, ironically, if you want to hear the harshest stands on migration, access for new migrants to public funds, the importance of ensuring new migrants respect and cherish the UK, and limiting of number of migrants who can be naturalised as citizens, you need look no further than British voters who were naturalised, or who were born to parents who were migrants.
This means that Conservative Party should appeal to a substantial percentage of such voters with its current platform. The reality is that it is not able to. Many answers can be given as to why this is the case. Clearly, the party still has a long way to go in having voices from such backgrounds represented, and a lot of homework to do in understanding these communities. Yet even if the Conservative Party were to address these concerns, the language and tone of migration debates would always be a hindrance for the large number of voters who feel inclined towards traditional conservative values but cannot bring themselves to vote for a Conservative candidate because the rhetoric excludes them.
Often migration discussions lapse into xenophobia, scapegoating and the demonisation of migrants, which in turn makes Brits with migrant roots feel distanced and targeted. It is all the more discouraging that migrant voices are completely absent from discussions on migration, and that most discussions are held as if there are no migrants in the room and somehow migrants don’t hear what is being said about them.
The outcomes of this range from the UK missing out on attracting global talent to British businesses, migrants struggling to integrate and feeling alienated from the British society (which creates fertile ground for radicalisation), and a significant number of Brits feeling that they have no voice in the future of their country. Beyond the domestic context, it is also costing the UK diplomatic capital by underutilising the potential of its own diverse population as natural bridges for global outreach for British government, businesses and culture.
There is a way to discuss the migration issue – which is not only a British challenge but a global one, with identical arguments unfolding all across the world – without alienating migrants and British citizens with migrant roots. If the Conservative Party were to crack that code, it could gain more votes by attracting these rather than by alienating them. This is a painful but necessary process for the Conservatives. The Conservative Party needs to re-read its voter base, take this challenge seriously, alter its public language on migration and move beyond seeing potential candidates with migrant roots as peripheral window-dressing rather than as integral parts of the future of the party, just as they are integral parts of the future of United Kingdom.